Collective Nouns: Singular or Plural?

By Maeve Maddox

British and American style guides tend to agree that collective nouns like audience, committee, and data can be construed as either singular or plural, according to whether the word is perceived as a unit or as individual items. As it says in The Chicago Manual of Style, “a singular verb emphasizes the group; a plural verb emphasizes the individual members.” Plural collectives can also be identified by pronouns used with them.

British and American guides offer similar sentences to illustrate this use. Here are some examples from British sources:

Guardian/Observer Style Guide
The committee gave its unanimous approval to the plans.
The committee enjoyed biscuits with their tea.

The family can trace its history back to the middle ages.
The family were sitting down, scratching their heads.

The BBC Style Guide
My family consists of me, my two brothers and my mum.
Before the recession, my brother’s family were quite well off, but now they are hard up.

The government has said it will give more money to hospitals and schools.
The government are determined not to let their popularity with the voters slip.

Here are some sentences from American sources.

The AP Stylebook
The data is sound.
The data have been carefully collected.

The Chicago Manual of Style
The ruling majority is unlikely to share power.
The majority are nonmembers.

The audience showed its appreciation.
The audience rushed back to their seats.

The Longman Handbook for Writers and Readers
The audience shows its approval in the form of applause.
The audience clap their hands to show approval.

The staff is hardworking and well trained.
The staff have earned many sales awards this year.

Because most American speakers recoil from using a plural verb or plural pronouns with a collective noun, sentences like the following strike the American ear as utterly wrong:

The staff have earned many sales awards this year.
The family were sitting down, scratching their heads.

American speakers prefer to make collective nouns singular and emphasize the individual members of a group by adding something plural:

Members of the staff have earned many sales awards this year.
Members of the family were sitting down, scratching their heads.

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3 Responses to “Collective Nouns: Singular or Plural?”

  • Yorick

    “The data have been carefully collected” feels so wrong instead of using “has”. I see why it is technically correct but hurts my head to read it.

  • Precise Edit

    I cannot accept “data” as a singular noun.

    An approximate synonym for “data” is “facts.” “Findings” also resembles “data.”

    I often read and hear “data” used as a singular in common usage and in education research, but in the hard sciences, where accuracy and clarity are essential to the scientific process and interpretation, “data” is more commonly used as a plural. However, I have noticed that younger members of the scientific fields are more likely to use it as a singular than are the older members, perhaps correlating to the decline of formal grammar instruction and scientific integrity in higher education.

    Using “data” as a singular noun (e.g., the data suggests…) limits the ability to differentiate research findings as a whole from individual findings, which, alone, are valueless unless statistically anomalous. Thus, with clarity as the primary goal, using “data” as a plural (e.g., the data suggest) allows for more accurate interpretation.

    And, really, who cares what the AP style guide says? The AP is not a scientific organization and has little or no credibility when discussing scientific research, which is the realm of data. Other than a few highly specialized journalists, journalists as a whole know little about science or the interpretation of scientific research. (For example, I often read something like “a 10% increase from 70% to 80%.) Conversely, I have seen copy editors of respected scientific and medical journals return articles with an admonition to use “data” as a plural. I will side with them.

  • Maeve

    Precise Edit,
    Authors writing in the context of science definitely need to regard “data” as plural only, but when it comes to general vocabulary, I believe that insisting on the plural-only use for “data” is a lost cause.

    Other Latin plurals have dropped out of general use while remaining in scientific, religious, or academic use. Some have even acquired specialized meanings for the plural forms. The plural of “stigma,” for example, “stigmata,” is mostly seen in religious contexts. The plural “stigmas” is more common in secular contexts, as in this headline from _The Guardian_: “Food stamps: why recipients are haunted by stigmas and misconceptions.” I don’t like to add to your pain, but I wouldn’t be surprised–if I were to live another fifty or a hundred years–to see the birth of a plural “datas” to go with singular “data.”

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